Refractions and Reflections

Over the summer, I spent my time working at the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island, New York. It is a small museum that, despite the fact that I’ve lived on the island my whole life, I had no idea it had opened in 2015. It is located just two blocks off of the famous Staten Island Ferry. The museum is quaint and run by only two employees, a series of revolving interns, and a family of wonderfully dedicated volunteers. Working there, one learns an awful lot of interesting history about lighthouses. For example, the museum’s location was chosen not because there was ever a lighthouse there, but rather because it was the location where lighthouse parts were sent over from France to be assembled and sent to the U.S. The site did have an experimental lighthouse. However, around 1939, as lighthouses became one of the first sites of full-use electricity and automation, the U.S. Coast Guard adopted the Lighthouse division of the government and the site became a ship-repair site until it was ultimately left abandoned in the 60’s.

There it remained until 2015, when the National Lighthouse Museum finally opened. The museum itself is in the same building that the foundry where the blacksmiths used to work was located. In its current state, the museum doesn’t exactly draw in tons of visitors. In another way to make revenue, the museum offers boat tours that navigate around New York, visiting various lighthouses whilst lighthouse experts provide historical lectures. I got the opportunity to play the role of the humble boy selling snacks and sodas on this unique experience. In addition to learning about lighthouses, I also learned about the type of people who want to learn about lighthouses.

As the boat begins to depart, I get to first see a behind-the-scenes view of the board of directors making sure everything is in order. An interesting thing about lighthouses is that they’re such a relic of the past that most people would never think twice about them. There’s something inherently nostalgic about lighthouses. In a similarly nostalgic vein, a specific member of the board by the name of Peter was freaking out as he wasn’t sure that everyone boarding the boat had signed a manifesto in case the boat gets into a shipwreck. As I watch him go crazy over a piece of paper with the cursive words “Manifesto” written at the top, I get the vague sense that lighthouses and modernity simply don’t blend naturally.

Once the boat leaves the port the 4-hour long trip in the hot sun has finally begun. Luckily, I am continuously cooled by the ice cream in the cooler I am dragging around the deck. The guests include a few families, some of which have children that appear to be toddlers. The majority of the guests, however, are white men and their wives aged at some number that appears to be after fifty. Many of them sport military garb or Vineyard Vines polos, and the wives generally have some type of DSLR either in their purse or around their neck.

The first lighthouse the boat passes is Robbins Reef Lighthouse, a smaller one that is actually shorter than the boat. However, the location and the fact that it’s surrounded by larger ships make it photogenic enough to please the chattering attendees. As I sell an ice cream cone to a woman who is upset that I don’t have the wine (it was sold separately by an older gentleman at the front of the deck), I realize I’m probably not going to actually hear any of the information about the lighthouses today. It seems the voice of the speaker is going to be consistently blocked out by the chatter of the passengers as they try to get a good photo or share to each other how they got “involved” with lighthouses.

The first hour drags by slowly. Some men appear to have brought their own coolers with more than enough beer. One passenger in particular has already fallen asleep against a wall and appears to show no signs of waking up to get the value of his $60 ticket.

Another hour goes by. Slower than the last and seemingly hotter, but still, it goes by. The boat passes by harbors, shipwrecks, and gets way too close for comfort to a cruise ship. There’s a certain sense of that nostalgia as you move through the ocean for all these artifacts that exist all around where I’ve lived my whole life, but I’ve never once taken the time to consider their presence.

At this point, three of the older guests start speaking to me after they purchase sodas from me. They are all sporting blue polos with the logo of the museum, so I know immediately they’re “lighthouse people” (Lighthouse people are the type of person who visits the National Lighthouse Museum at least weekly, despite the fact that they’ve seen every exhibit and more, and probably know much more information than the museum has to offer. Rather, they attend because of some addictive love to lighthouses, and the hopes of finding people, sometimes a poor intern trying to do work, to share their stories with. In the setting of the boat tour, they were especially looking to share stories.) As the boat passes by the Coney Island Lighthouse, they continuously beg me to answer “So how did you get into lighthouses?” I tried to explain multiple times I never really got “into” them but rather just found a paying internship at a museum, but that didn’t seem to satiate them. On the contrary, they seemed to create some character for me in their heads that I was a young man who just couldn’t get enough of lighthouse history.

They took this character to heart and began sharing with me their own personal stories of visiting lighthouses after they all left the navy. As I tried to leave to continue selling snacks but was followed by them, I began to notice a common thread in these men. They were all former navy men, which had been made obvious by the fact that they mentioned it seven times each. Nonetheless, they were friendly, if not overbearing. However, they kept on sharing stories of how they’ve visited lighthouses across Mongolia or how they attended a lecture of the Fresnel (frey-nel) Lens and its use in America vs. Europe. After a while, I noticed that they seemed to be trying to one-up each other, and I really felt like the bell of the ball for a moment. It really felt like they weren’t telling these stories to each other but rather to me, almost trying to impress me.

The only hypothesis I’ve come up with for why they all tried way too much to form some type of bond with me as I sold warm bottles of water is that I was unique that day. All of the guests were either just like them, older men whose stories, while unique, will begin to blend with each other after a while. I, on the other hand, was a fresh face. And to top it all off, I was a young white male, the exact type of person they probably associate their naval stories with. Worse than any of that, I was an employee, trapped in a small space and forced to listen. I know it sounds like a stretch, but I really felt like those men were trying to form some random paternal relationship with me. It felt to me like they were using me as some weird attempt to prove their lighthouse knowledge was still relevant and interesting. I’m not trying to bash the history of lighthouses, as some of it actually does have a specifically niche appeal. Nonetheless, when I’m having it shoved down my throat by men who are assuming we became best friends in the course of an hour, it can grow frustrating fast.

As the boat tour reached what I believe was the Little Red Lighthouse, and the last of the lighthouses before heading back towards the Staten Island Harbor, I ran out of water bottles. This was the greatest outrage ever for many of my patrons, many of whom blamed me personally for not only the fact that the board didn’t pack enough, but also for the heat itself. As the tour finally ended after a brutal four hours, I made my way home. As I left the harbor, one of the older men invited me to go out for drinks with them, but I simply made the excuse that my mother was waiting to pick me up, which was actually true.

Although this experience may sound largely weird, I wouldn’t want it to dissuade any reader from thinking the boat tour was unenjoyable. After all, the goal of a museum is to preserve and capture a moment in time. When you step on one of those boat tours, for a moment, between the manifestos and the storytelling, it really does seem like you step back in time to a time when lighthouses were an essential part of daily life.

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